During the last couple of weeks, our family has celebrated various milestones, such as the graduation of our youngest son from high school on the same night as my mother’s 64th high school class reunion. This week also marks the 25th anniversary of my first appointment after graduating from seminary. I had worked an internship as an associate pastor and had served a circuit of churches in the British Methodist Church for a year, but in June of 1984, I received my first full-time, post-seminary appointment to Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas.
1984 was a General Conference year, the Cabinet was running late on their appointment-making, and in those days fresh seminary grads were the last to be appointed. So I didn’t hear where I would serve until a week after my graduation service at Perkins. All my friends knew where they were going, but Esther and I waited and waited. People were moving out of the dorms. We tried to reserve a U-Haul trailer to carry the bookcases and rocking chair that were too big for our Toyota Corolla. We told the dealer when we would need the trailer and he asked where we would take it, and we had to tell him that we had no idea. Our destination was somewhere between Sterling City, Texas, and Brownsville, Texas – an expanse or more than 400 miles! Remember Abraham and Sarah? “They set out, not knowing where they were going…”
Two weeks later, we moved into the parsonage in Harlingen. The first day in the office I gathered the names of the most seriously ill members in hospitals and nursing homes and immediately visited them. I wanted to see them before the first Sunday service, since I didn’t want to receive a death call and then have to work with a grieving family without ever having met their loved one. Also on the first day, I invited the church secretary into the sanctuary, and we walked through every single movement of the worship service as the previous pastor had led them so that I would know what people had been accustomed to. Later I repeated the process with the head usher, bulletin in hand, walking through every element and rubric of the service. I changed little, and only over time began to reshape the service gently and slightly to match my own style. I wrote and rewrote my sermon manuscript for the first Sunday, and practiced it in the pulpit by myself, marking and remarking the text. Early on Sunday morning, an older colleague called me and told me he was praying for me, and that first Sundays are always anxiety-producing, and that it would go well. The phone call was grace, a sustaining gift.
On my first Monday morning, I prepared my part of the church newsletter and started to organize my day and week. Late in the morning, Rob Rumbo phoned me. Rob had a cantankerous edge at times, but he was a deeply committed life-long United Methodist, an insurance agent, and he loved the church. He called to tell me about the death that morning of one of our inactive members who had been suffering from cancer, and he gave me the address of where the family lived, and then gave me instructions on where to find the house on the outskirts of town where street addresses gave way to rural routes. Rob could hear the anxious pause on my end of the phone as I contemplated my first death call in my first appointment with a family I had never met. Without hesitation, this wonderfully generous layperson filled the gap, and said, “Pastor, how about if I come pick you up at the office and let’s drive out there together to see the family?” What a gift! His encouragement, his spiritual intuition, and his sense of mutual ministry eased my anxiety. He was there in the room with me praying for me as I prayed for the family over their father’s deathbed. In the years to come, I would help perform the funeral of Rob’s mother, and later his granddaughter, and later his son, and finally his own.
Not long ago I was on a flight of nearly a thousand miles. The pilots landed the plane safely and we taxied to the gate. I could see the people on the ground waving the signal flags that directed the plane to a stop. And then we waited. And we waited some more. The ground crew was trying to maneuver the jet bridge to the door of the aircraft, but it was stuck about a foot from the plane. We could not deplane. We had made it safely for more than a thousand miles, but we were one foot short of the necessary connection to complete the trip. Only the ground crew could help us with that last twelve inches.
In like manner, Bishop Dixon and the Cabinet through their appointment process had landed me in Harlingen, Texas, twenty-five years ago. But without the ground crew that included the secretary, the usher, and Rob Rumbo, I might never have completed the connection.
Yours in Christ,